For two centuries November was the deadliest month on Lake Ontario. A few days ago the weather service posted storm warnings of fifty knot winds and twenty two foot waves on the lake. Late fall gales and storms like this sent dozens of ships to the bottom in the nineteenth century as ship owners tried to squeeze one last trip in to push the season’s profits into the black. One of the worst gales, the storm of Nov 7 and 8, 1880 found its way into the climax of my novel “Widow Maker”, and the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald went down on Lake Superior in November of 1975
That month, 140 years ago, saw not one but two deadly storms blast across the gray waters of Lake Ontario. In 1880 the region’s ship owners were slowly recovering from the severe “panic” of the previous decade when tens of thousands of businesses went under and millions of workers were left penniless in a time when there was no government ‘safety net’ or stimulus payments. No doubt a few short cuts had been made to keep the old vessels in service perhaps contributing to the toll of the early November storm.
On the morning of November 7 the wind was light and southerly, and the air felt oppressive. C.H.J. Snider wrote in his newspaper column Schooner Days that at least a few captains elected to stay in port. Some of the vessels by then had barometers, and no doubt they were showing the approach of a strong low pressure. But the captains of other family owned vessels like the little Wood Duck and the Belle Sheridan did get underway. For a half dozen ships it was their last trip ever.
The wind came on heavy from the southwest, and by Saturday night had shifted west as the temperature dropped. Lake Erie got the blow a few hours earlier and a news account of the wreck of the schooner “Falmouth” recalled “It was intensely cold, every drop of water that touched the rigging or spars freezing almost instantly”. That night on both lakes, heavy lake effect snows blinded the crews as their ships struggled to survive in house sized waves.
Some of the vessels loaded with grain or lumber or coal lost sails, were dismasted, or, like the Snowbird and the Wood Duck at Oswego, ended up on the beach. Perhaps the most tragic of the wrecks was that of the Belle Sheridan smashed to pieces on the stony shores of Prince Edward County in a surf so violent it literally tore the bodies of her crew apart. Only one man survived. Here’s how the crew of the stout little two master Gazelle reacted to the onset of Lake Ontario’s deadliest gale.
Here it comes, Mollie thought. She wrestled on her jacket quickly in the darkness. On deck the rain had stopped, But the blackness was almost tangible. Ben’s sturdy bulk stood a few feet from Nate who was steering. “I was just about to turn out the off watch.” said Ben. “Did you hear it?”
Mollie opened her mouth to ask “hear what” when a deep rumble sounded off to the west. Fear crawled down her spine and settled in a hard ball in her stomach. November thunder. A winter squall lurked out there somewhere in the darkness. It was stalking them. Soon, perhaps within minutes, it would be on them. And then the main act would follow. The old widow maker would be sweeping the decks tonight…
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